Having had a little experience with Suunto – two decades worth of it, in fact – I had wanted to get back to them in person for a while.
No better time than now that Suunto released the new Spartan platform.
With the Spartan (Ultra and Sport), Suunto has a new product line with a lot of potential. And a whole lot of disappointment about this potential not having been realized right from the get-go, and still not having being realized.
You use a product, you want it to work.
Between expectations from other products, social media-provided chances for interaction, and the workings of a company and corporation, however, things easily take a turn to the not-so-simple.
Customers and Corporates
It’s always a strange thing for me to dive as deep into discussions about Suunto products online as I tend to do, given my background with them.
On the one hand, there is everything that’s online and visible to everyone.
Here, of course, is where social media – which we get so much of our information (and “information” ) from nowadays and where we interact with companies, especially when we have something to complain about – have become tremendously important.
Here, there are lots of complaints and disappointments, everyone is just a beta tester, and nothing is right. (Except if you look at Instagram, interestingly.)
Among other things, one can read here that Suunto said that the Spartan would be the next generation after the Ambit (which they did). Therefore, they promised that the Spartan would do everything the Ambit3 did and more (which they didn’t).
There is also the other side, the behind the scenes.
There, Suunto does testing internally, keeps some external testers busy (disclosure: me among them, again – and on and off for the last 15 years or so) , keeps improving things as fast as they manage, and always works on new things.
A lot happens there, it just isn’t usually seen.
Sometimes, it’s not possible to show it (for legal and financial reasons or because it is proprietary information, prototypes, etc.), sometimes marketing just hasn’t been good at communicating it.
The Suunto Summit
One of the things that just happened somewhere in the gray area between the public spotlight and the not-to-be-declared behind-the-scenes: the Suunto Summit.
Karo from Suunto’s design team had recently taken over the work with external (beta) testers and came up with that idea of organizing a meeting with them, if any should be willing to come.
Well, quite a few of us were more than a little willing, and as I had been planning a factory tour and interviews for a while, I pushed to use the visit for those as well.
(To be exact, a look into the factory was on the regular schedule; my interviews, we arranged on the side. The interviews will be published shortly, just as soon as they are edited and approved.)
The area of Vantaa, just north of Helsinki, where Suunto has its headquarters, doesn’t exactly seem the place for the great outdoors.
It’s pretty industrial.
But then, where would you put industry if not somewhere between major city and airport?
Anyways, “the Mothership” for Suuntonians sits right there, it seems a pretty decent sized and ordinary office and factory structure… but some things are a bit different.
Bike shed near the entrance, altitude reference marker on the door – not quite the usual.
And that comes before you find or are pointed to the view from the air, with the compass rose on the roof…
Maybe a surprise, and a reminder of the problem with knowing a company only from their products and online interaction, is that Suunto is actually quite modest in size.
Amer Sports, the parent corporation, focuses on “connected devices” as one of the major areas of growth, and that basically means Suunto “watches.”
But, it would be only too easy to miss that Suunto is not even 500 employees and a factory that may be plenty big compared to a living room, but that could still fit into just the shipping warehouse of the other major player in the GPS watch space…
You wouldn’t know it from the lobby, either, but where one rather more open view leads to the offices, the other side leads right into the factory.
Left, the magic. Right, the manufacture…
Of course, nothing much of the production may be shown, but suffice it to say that there are a few surprises here, too:
Many people know Suunto from diving watches, and many might not know about that anymore. Either way, quite some space is dedicated to these devices.
Of course, we now tend to associate Suunto with outdoors, especially GPS, watches – and a major part of the space (as well as time; the outdoors section runs in three shifts…) does produce those.
It is all still relatively small and truly quite “Made in Finland,” with very few parts from far away and all assembled right here.
(And this time around, we didn’t even have a designer working there overtime, trying to get a certain shade of a color just the way he wanted it to be, with just the right properties, as I had seen before…)
We started at the receiving and warehousing section, ended at shipping, and there were not so few watches waiting to go out.
After all the complaining online that makes it sound as if people couldn’t run anymore because their new Spartans didn’t record anything, it was good to see piles of Suunto watches on their way out – and of course, I found the China Edition of the Spartans at once.
Talks at Suunto
Not much that can be said about the workshops with Suunto that formed a part of the Suunto Summit, but there’s this:
The chance to directly speak with users was immediately and gladly taken up, and it was obvious that the people at Suunto have been following the feedback they have received very closely.
Not just that from/for their own “Spartan Gets Stronger” survey, but also all the other discussions that have been happening (and that often seem to – and indeed do – go unacknowledged).
Workshop content was not public, but reinforced the perception that Suunto likes to know what people think and takes it on (even if business considerations and the diverse interests of the users – and we already had very diverse interests just among us few people – mean that not every wish can be fulfilled).
Day 1, I also had a chance to talk with Antti Kujala, Head of Design, right in Suunto’s auditorium… and I hope I’ll finally, soon, get the green light to publish that interview.
For accommodation and dinners, we had collectively decided on the more rustic choice we were offered, the “Bear’s Nest” log cabin (Karhunpesä) in Nuuksio National Park.
(Full disclosure, by the way: Suunto paid for that accommodation, most food, and transport during the stay; flights, additional nights or food, were paid for by the participants.)
The second day’s workshops were held there; we got a short meet-and-greet (and I, an interview, again just waiting to get the go-ahead) with Mikko Moilanen, the CEO of Suunto; and of course we continued discussing our interests in sports and Suunto devices. And yes, also annoyances ;)
Helsinki City Trail
This being an outdoors company, we couldn’t just remain cooped up and talk. Rather, the Suunto Summit was set to coincide with the Helsinki City Trail 5k/11k/21k run.
Not coincidentally, it saw many participants from Suunto (at least this year) and is, in fact, organized by a Suunto employee.
This run was more than a little surprising. And fun. And faultily done on my part.
Enough so that I will put up a separate post / trail-and-race report…
Getting Lost, or Not
Most of the Summit-eers also went on to an orienteering session on Sunday.
I have to readily admit, I rather went into Helsinki to see a bit more of the city (and, well, stockpile Fazer chocolates).
Just walking around and taking pictures close by Karhunpesä cabin , I promptly found one of the orienteering controls, though.
And the activity formed the perfect end to this event.
For several reasons: It led out and deeper into nature again, but it did so without GPS guidance (except perhaps to find the way back).
It led right back to the surprise insight many of us had had inside the factory: Suunto still produces a pretty wide collection of compasses, the very product category they started out with, as well.
Even in times of seemingly ubiquitous GPS, there is no underestimating the power of map and compass…